What Colleges and Universities Can Learn From Duke’s Curriculum Refresh Project

By April 27, 2017 No Comments

If you’re a university administrator or instructor who’s spent more than a few years in higher ed, you’ve likely been exposed to the daunting prospect of reimagining your undergraduate core or general ed curriculum. Faced with declining enrollment, reduced funding and rapid technology advancement, many institutions have undertaken ambitious curriculum revision projects in an attempt to gain a competitive edge or simply maintain relevance.

Change management is a beast

In 2014, Duke University launched an undergraduate curriculum refresh project that charged a committee to, ‘examine the state of the curriculum and make revisions.’ This week, Inside Higher Ed shared an update on the project with the dramatic headline, ‘Years of Work, Tabled.’ The article describes challenges the committee faced in gaining consensus, and their eventual recognition that the most reasonable next step is to pause and find a more effective way to work collegially.

You’ve probably faced down the beast known as ‘change management.’ Running a university is like running a small country, comprised of enemy territories with extreme power imbalances. Curriculum overhaul is a beastly undertaking, often done at the expense of other high priority projects.  I worked at one university where a college had to decide whether to spend the next three years updating the core curriculum, or developing online programs and courses. They believed they didn’t have the resources to accomplish both at the same time.

People are your priority

Your curriculum sets you apart and influences the value of the credentials you offer. It helps you recruit and retain students, faculty and staff. A strong curriculum that reflects the culture and values of your institution is vital to maintaining an engaged alumni and development community. But when it comes to prioritizing progress initiatives, one thing clearly trumps the importance of exceptional curriculum: your people.

When instructors are passionate about their position and don’t recognize the value of the initiative, it’s wisdom, not failure, to let the project take a break. All the learning analytics and competitive intelligence you can gather can’t replace the value of understanding the lived experiences of your students and faculty. You can’t successfully debate an instructor’s world view, grounded by decades of hands-on effort, with a spreadsheet. Change is hard. People are complex. A project pause is not a project failure. Dramatic headlines rarely reflect an accurate perspective.

Technology is for processes

Technology can’t help you simplify people. But it can help you simplify processes so you can spend more time with your people to develop shared understanding. It can help you reduce the time it takes to recognize the need to take a break and regroup. And it can help reveal new opportunities and paths to success, that are sometimes hard to uncover when people dig in their heels and resist exploring alternate perspectives.

Curriculum Management systems are designed to simplify the curriculum approval and maintenance process. By providing a single source of curriculum data, they help prevent duplication of efforts, and allow you to gain insight into your full curriculum inventory. You can also use a Curriculum Management system to identify bottlenecks in your approval process, so you can anticipate challenges from particular groups of approvers.

Curriculum Management makes a difference

If you’re embarking on a curriculum refresh journey, or have stalled part-way through the process, consider adopting a Curriculum Management tool to reduce some of the pain, and allow you to focus on nurturing shared understanding.

Here are five ways you can use a Curriculum Management tool to get you closer to consensus, faster.

1. Illuminate curricular relationships

Identifying dependencies among courses, programs, and learning experiences is one of the most challenging tasks during a curriculum refresh project. When you’re considering retiring a course, or changing the outcomes, it’s critical to understand the impact across the institution. A Curriculum Management system quickly reveals dependent relationships between courses and programs, but also can help you identify linked outcomes from course, to program, to institution level. When you discover a change may have a painful impact on a particular department or college, you know where you need to focus your conversations.

2. Visualize alternative learning experiences

While most institutions recognize the value of providing alternative learning experiences, such as seminar programs, thematic clusters and service learning, many are stuck with legacy student information systems that require them to squeeze the experience information into a standard course or program format. A Curriculum Management system allows you to manage experiences in a different format, while still linking them to your standard courses and programs, to create dependent relationships. Freed from the legacy format, learning experiences take on new life and it’s easier for faculty to understand and recognize the value. Suddenly that radical experience idea begins to look like common sense.

3. Identify bottlenecks

If your approval process doesn’t include an online workflow routing tool, it can be nearly impossible to get a big picture view of progress and determine where proposals are stuck. Curriculum Management systems include an automated workflow process that sends notifications to approvers when it’s their turn to act on a proposal. Their approval actions are tracked on the curriculum proposal and reports reveal bottlenecks to help you understand where you might need to focus extra attention on people. If proposals are piling up with the Languages department curriculum committee, it might be time to have a conversation.

4. Adopt institutional outcomes or themes

Every curriculum refresh project I’ve experienced has included alignment with institutional outcomes or themes. In some cases, accreditation recommendations have driven the entire project. (The teacher in me wants to ask, ‘Raise your hand if you’ve ever had to manage institutional outcome mapping on spreadsheets.’) With a Curriculum Management system, your administrator simply adds the list of outcomes or themes to the system settings and they can be selected in a dropdown or type-ahead field on every curricular item. You can run reports to discover which courses and programs aren’t aligned with outcomes, or to prove to accreditors that you’ve addressed the recommendation!

5. Roll out the big change

When you’re focused on the ‘what’ of your new curriculum, it’s easy to ignore the ‘how.’ You’re just trying to get the curriculum past the finish line with buy-in from all the stakeholders. You may even have separate committees for curriculum development and implementation. How are you going to manage the logistics of replacing your entire academic core? Versioning. A Curriculum Management system lets you create versions of your curriculum and assign effective periods for each version. This allows you to build all the new curriculum with a future effective period, without modifying the current approved curriculum. For courses and programs that may need a gradual transition, you can build multiple versions between the current version and the one you’ll launch with your full refresh. By using versions, you can also run reports to monitor progress on curriculum development for your new core. You can quickly determine which curricular items have an approved version for your future effective period.

We can all iterate to evolve

Media provides a window through which we can view the pain of others. We have the opportunity to learn from those who have gone before and are willing to share their knowledge. There’s a quiet lesson from the Duke experience embedded in Dean Laurie Patton’s Fall 2014 Address to A&S Council, that launched the project:

‘Our intention is to keep things light, rather than mandate a major reform. If we had mandated a major reform, then we would all be carrying this heavily. But I want there to be a frame in which we work together in a more creative and engaging way, and yet if there is a big idea that emerges from this committee, we move forward with it. I would welcome it and endorse that big idea.’

Perhaps the project hasn’t collapsed. Perhaps they’re simply one iteration from discovering the big idea.

Author Jen Dalby

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